Sunday, December 21, 2014


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a story that takes place in the mind of an eight-year-old. She is a remarkable eight-year-old, irrepressible and creative, but then we all know a lot of eight-year-olds who fit that description.

We know she created Wonderland because, when Alice is awoken from a nap by her older sister, she immediately recounts it as a dream. All of us dream. Every night we are out there in Wonderland, writing stories, building images, in dreamscapes, hellscapes, and fantasies of the mind.

All of us are there: chartered accountants in Edinburgh, cassava farmers outside Ibadan, fishermen in Melekeok, not to mention every child in the world. No matter how staid or straightforward we believe ourselves to be, we write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland every night.

 Welcome to your world.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Half-Dozen Versions of Tag

For PE in the extreme cold, we kept moving by inventing and playing six different original versions of tag. Each pair of students had five minutes to come up with their rendition of the game. Then we walked across the street to County Farm Park. Once on the playground, we played them all in consecutive five-minute sessions.

In Rhino Tag, the person serving as It could only tag another person with his or her forehead. Once that happened, the tagee linked arms with It, forming a larger, if less mobile, tagging force. This was itself a variation on Blob Tag, in which the larger force emitted zombie-like groans as they stumbled around in pursuit of their nimbler, albeit increasingly freaked-out, quarry.

Two games employed both an It and an Unfreezer. In Vogue Tag, you had to strike a pose when tagged, in the manner of Madonna's Vogue video. You could be released from this pose when the Unfreezer sang an original verse or two about you. (Mike immediately volunteered for this role, and carried it off with vim, if not gusto.) Nutmeg Tag had Nik roaming the field and nutmegging* those who had been tagged. 

In Reverse Tag, everyone was It except one person, who was pursued by the rest: a 1-on-11 game. Hands Free Molten Lava Tag required everyone to stay on the big play structure, since the ground below was molten lava. The person playing It stayed on the structure too and was forbidden any use of the hands. That had nothing to do with the lava. It was just funny.

* That's when a person stands with legs apart, and the ball is passed between the feet, like a shot through tiny goalposts.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Elizabeth's Exhibition

Isobel shared her account and impressions of Elizabeth's first Exhibition.

Elizabeth’s exhibition question was ‘How does diaspora affect our everyday lives?’ She talked about how things are moved from one place to another, where things were made to where they were sold. She showed us her mural which has many people from different places, cultures and flags, representing immigrants to the United States.

For the activity we formed teams and went to look for labels that told us where that item came from. Then after about 5 to 10 minutes she called us back and gave us a set of brightly colored star stickers. Then we placed the star stickers on a large map of the world.

The exhibition was very interesting, the star stickers were one of my favorite parts. The activity was very hands-on. I thought the exhibition went very well and Elizabeth was very confident.

Science Projects

For the February round of Exhibitions, our fourteen students, with guidance from several adults, will design projects with a scientific focus. 

I have shared with them selected writings from two sources: longform.org, a website devoted to interesting articles of a certain length culled from print and the web; and the Best American series, specifically, the 2013 and 2014 editions of Best American Science and Nature Writing. These essays will make for challenging reading, but our kids can manage them, and because these pieces are mostly from general-reader publications (e.g. The Atlantic and The New York Times), they include sufficient background for lay readers.

Here are links to both:
Best American Science Writing 2014

Each student will read three essays and will be expected to create a hands-on project, preferably an experiment or engineering task, on the subject matter of any one of those. They may work alone or with a single partner. The articles run the gamut from medical research to genetics to climate change to agroforestry to environmental themes to astrophysics (and so on). They will choose something that they can relate to, that matters to them, and that they find compelling. 

For example, a student might read David Dobbs' Beautiful Brains, a National Geographic article describing recent neurological developments in the understanding of why teenagers make the decisions they do. (It starts out spicy: the author's 17-year-old son calls him from the police station, where he has been arrested for driving 113 miles an hour.) Dobbs explains what brain research has to say on this topic.

What kind of active project could be built from this? The student would need to choose a question to explore: say, Can I really plot behavior to the growth of the brain? Exploring the answer might involve studying the structure of the brain, and recreating it as a sequence of models or representations showing stages from infancy to adulthood. He or she might then conduct a behavioral survey of younger children, his/her classmates, and a group of adults, and compare them. The final version could head in any number of directions. 

Other projects on other topics could find a student measuring the pollutant content of water samples. Another might plant seeds. Another might pour Coca-Cola on rust stains. These activities should yield scientific understanding (and excitement) in physics, or biology, or chemistry, or genetics. Perhaps one will plan the regeneration of the SK patch of wetland by our playground. 

Projects begin with great questions.

To make these experiences more powerful, each student, or pair of students, will have a science advisor. In collaboration with me, this advisor would ensure that the student(s) have the right grasp of the key scientific concepts, are able to design a project that explores these central themes, and can execute it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Maya's Exhibition

Nik shared some impressions of Maya's Exhibition, which asked, 'How do diaspora become permanent?'

Maya’s exhibition was about the African American and Jewish diaspora.

In her exhibition, Maya talked about her family tree, and the connections between her family tree,
utopia, dystopia, and diaspora. It was very absorbing because she gave real life examples from her family of global movements. These included examples of the African American side of her family moving to areas surrounding Michigan. She also kept people involved by having an interesting activity planned for the end. 

I think the music she played also drew people in and started conversations. Her music choices, which traced the development of both diaspora as they became Americans, definitely showed and made obvious the change of pace transitioning between homelands. She wrapped this up by playing music from her own family, representing the present state of the two groups she had researched.

All went very well up until the point in which she presented her activity. I think people might have been distracted by all of the candy that was used in this particular demonstration, as groups placed different types of candy on different states to represent the Jewish and African American populations.

Otherwise her exhibition was a success.

Isobel's Exhibition

Maya shared some thoughts on Isobel's Exhibition.

Isobel’s exhibition was intriguing in many different ways, but the most interesting thing about it was that her lesson was on a topic that you would think is very simple: twins. 

When you think of twins you basically just think of two siblings that were born at the same time. Sometimes, you think of fraternal or identical twins as well. Before I attended Isobel’s exhibition I was excited to find out what Isobel would talk about in her exhibition since it was on such a 'simple' topic. I wasn't disappointed, because Isobel took the topic of twins to another level. She named and explained varieties of twins that I never knew existed. 

The one that I found most interesting was mirror twins. They are the exact opposite from each other. An example that Isobel gave was if one twin had a birthmark on her left cheek the other would have a birthmark on their right. This was also an unfortunate situation, because one twin would have their heart and organs on the right side and the other twin would have their heart and organs on the wrong side. 

Isobel also compared the way twins are viewed in different parts of the world: China, with its 'one child' policy; Nigeria, where traditional beliefs mingle with modern views; and the US, where she focused on the story of two girls whose bodies are combined (conjoined twins).

Another thing I liked about it was that, sometimes in exhibitions, it's not really obvious that I’ve learned something. After I left Isobel’s exhibition, I knew that I had.

Trent's Exhibition

Nico attended Trent's Exhibition. Here are a few notes.

The topic of Trent's exhibition was child soldiers. He wrote a two-page paper with details about child soldiers around the world. He read A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, a memoir about the life of a child soldier. 

As an activity, he handed out slips of paper, numbered 1-8, with a different fact on each. He handed those out and had us read the facts in numerical order. This exhibition informed us on how many child soldiers there are approximately in the world at the time. That number is over 500,000 in 133 countries, over 250,000 of whom are in Africa. 

This was an extremely interesting topic for Trent to look into. I don’t know how many other students here would have chosen to go deeper into that topic.  

Kaeli's Exhibition

Aristea came in early for Kaeli's first Exhibition.

Kaeli’s exhibition found a entertaining way to explain Japanese Internment that made me WANT to learn, using the Gamestar Mechanic website. (For all of you that don't know, Gamestar Mechanic is a fun website where you can create and play video games.) The game traced a Japanese-American’s journey from home to an internment camp and back at the time of World War II.

Each of the seven levels was accompanied by a historical description, so that we knew what was going on in the video game and how it connected with what actually happened. I thought this was a very cool and unique way of teaching that made everyone interested and ready to learn more.

I thoroughly suggest that you check out her game: Japanese Internment.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jianmarco's Exhibition

Kaeli attended Jianmarco's early-morning Exhibition. Here is her report.

Jianmarco's exhibition was about fictional 'test-tube babies' and real-life genetic engineering. He had some slides explaining what both his topics were. Then he explained how prenatal genetic planning starting to happen in real life, and why. After that, he explained more of what genetic engineering is--working with the existing genetic material that parents pass on naturally, but eliminating genes for things like sensitivity to disease. You can even plan eye color. 

He also showed us a clip from a movie called Gattaca where the parents were telling the doctor what they did or didn’t want their baby to have. Did they want their baby to have no lung cancer? Did they not want her to like flowers? (That is a reference to early training in Brave New World.) After that, Jianmarco divided us into two groups. One group argued that it’s good to have genetically modified people. The other group argued against that. It was an interesting conversation.

Lee's Exhibition

Matthew wrote a little report on Lee’s Exhibition.

Lee did an exhibition on a game he made, based on the three school plays and a class book. The three plays were Gilgamesh, the Odyssey, and Alice in Wonderland. The book was Icarus Girl. He made a player for each main character, and invented the game rules and abilities. The cards helped players, as characters, maneuver through each other’s worlds, working together to collect treasures.

Lee did a good job running the exhibition, and ran over all the rules before the game. What was going to be the hard part of his exhibition was helping people play the game. We played the game, and although exhibition times didn’t allow us to finish, we all got the hang of the rules by that time. Lee had made the game board himself. For the cards, he had taken a normal deck of cards and written the names of the cards on them.

Lee’s game was well made. I thought he might have included two other characters from books which we had read this year. Although it was too long for the exhibition, that doesn’t make his game any worse. In fact, he could create new versions of the game with different characters, using the same format.

Aristea's Exhibition

Lee was one of many who attended Aristea's Exhibition. Here's what he has to say about it.

Along with Elizabeth, Aristea is painting a Utopia-Diaspora-Dystopia mural in our common room. In her exhibition, Aristea showed her sketches of Utopia and Dystopia, pointed out where the mural is being prepared, and explained the process from sketch to mural. She gave us both the dictionary definitions and her definitions of both. As the activity, she has us paint our versions of Utopia or Dystopia. 
She said: In my dystopia, there has to be enough good so that the bad hurts, and in my utopia, there has to be enough bad so that the good matters.
In some versions of a Utopia, nothing ever happens or changes. That would be a Dystopia for me, though, so I drew a face like this for both.

       O               O

Nothing happening. Most people agreed with me. My second option was a polar bear eating a marshmallow in a snowstorm, or blank paper. But most people agreed that this was better. The exhibition was fun, and well-taught.

Nikolas' Exhibition

Here are a few notes from Mike on Nik's first exhibition, which was attended by fifteen people.

Nik started by explaining what his project was: a graphic novella, without dialogue, created by Nik himself. After reviewing the story arc of his work, Nik then moved to declare that a utopia is specific to a person: one person’s utopia will be different than anyone else’s. The activity was drawing our vision of a utopia. This worked well for the more artistically inclined, but for the regular old Joes (mostly me), it didn't work as well.

Margaret's Exhibition

Karenna was part of the audience for Margaret's first Exhibition.

Margaret's theme was Utopia House, where she built a miniature house with the floors Hell, Earth, and Heaven. To go with the house, Margaret made a presentation about four different religions: Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Their representations of the three realms showed the differences. She had a lot of material from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible for Judaism and Christianity, represented on the house by a staircase and beautiful vistas. Zoroastrianism, which came before those, was the first monotheistic religion. Buddhism has more fluid and open ideas, especially reincarnation. We looked at the house, which featured black-red-and-orange fires in the basement, and saw common elements of all four religions.

Mike's Exhibition

Elizabeth attended Mike's Exhibition, which he titled 'U and Dys'. Here is her report.

Mike’s exhibition was on failed utopias, specifically, how quickly a utopia can become a dystopia. He talked about how everyone has their own versions of a utopia and how fast things can change, even between the generations. Mike gave an example of one failed utopia called the Amana Colonies in Iowa. After a couple of generations the people found that what their ancestors had thought was a utopia was actually dystopia and many of them moved away. Mike also gave an example of a utopia in Indiana that built in its own end: they knew that eventually the later generations would move away, so they didn’t have kids. It was called the Harmony colony and after all the people who had founded it had died the colony was empty. Mike also gave an example of a utopia that is still being built, called Arcosanti in Arizona. He talked about how they are making all the architecture very similar to nature.
Mike’s activity was breaking the group into groups of threes and having them write about how their utopias would be run and what things it would contain by answering these questions, What government would your utopia have and your Utopias view on many things including equality, currency and religion. After we had finished writing out answers down we switched with another group and assessed whether their utopia would be successful or not. We then switched back and had a discussion about other groups utopia and why or why not the utopias would succeed.
Mike's exhibition was the first one I had ever been to and was very excited! Mike's exhibition was very informative and interesting. It was engaging and really made me think about how much work would need to go into making a utopia. The examples he gave were very interesting and I enjoyed learning about them. I enjoyed doing the worksheet, but my group was very invested, and so we did not have enough time to finish. Switching with the others groups was a good idea and it was interesting to compare what a kids’ version of a utopia to what a grown-ups’ version. Overall I found the exhibition interesting and engaging, and a great start to my 8th grade exhibition year!


Nicolas' Exhibition

Margaret attended Nico's lesson on the migration and evolution of proto-humans. 
Here are a few of her observations.

Nico’s exhibition was about evolution and the early humans. He said this was the first diaspora: humans moving out of Africa. During that era we evolved into four different species: Homo Erectus, Homo Floresiensis, Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Sapiens (modern humans). At one point during the exhibition he gave out paper and had us draw the skulls of Homo Sapiens and Homo Erectus and point out the differences we saw, which was fun. Since I had been at one of Nico’s earlier exhibitions about Neanderthals, seeing another exhibition relating to that topic was intriguing. Overall, I think Nico’s most recent exhibition was well-prepared.

Karenna's Exhibition

Here are some notes from Trent on Karenna's Exhibition.

Karenna’s exhibition was great. She made a spreadsheet about how age has something to do with opinions on utopia, dystopia, and diaspora. The spreadsheet she made on google docs showed grades K - 8 and the most popular thoughts on each subject at each age. She also collected illustrations, including a crazy utopian marshmallow man. For the activity, we all created lists of things that we thought would go into the three different categories. At the very end we all shared our thoughts out loud on the subject. I noticed as the age group got older the topic became more serious.         

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Topia Exhibitions

Here is our basic Exhibition schedule. Each of these will be chronicled on this site by a peer's post. If you're interested in attending one, feel free to send me an e-mail for details on times and places.

Tuesday, December 2
Jianmarco on genetic engineering.
Mike on failed utopias.

Wednesday, December 3
Trent on child soldiers.
Nico on the migration and differentiation of early humans.
Isobel on twins in different cultures.

Thursday, December 4
Matthew, Kaeli, and Lee's games on utopias, wonderlands, and broken worlds.
Aristea & Elizabeth's mural of movement between broken worlds and perfect ones.
Karenna's survey of different age groups on utopias, dystopias, and diasporas.

Friday, December 5
Nik's utopian graphic novella.
Margaret's house depicting four religions' versions of Heaven, Hell, and Earth.
Maya's family tree and disparate diasporas.

An Exhibition is a half-hour lesson, taught by the student, to a group of assembled peers, family members, and SK staff.

Terrestrial Quidditch

In keeping with the Magic theme, we've been playing Quidditch in PE.

For those of you not familiar with the Harry Potter series--yes, you, sir, and you over there, way back in the corner--it's just you two, is it?--Quidditch is an airborne sport that carries roughly the same weight in the wizarding world as soccer does with the rest of us. There's a quadrennial World Cup and everything; there's even an American sport that we prefer to Quidditch called 'Quodpot'.

In JK Rowling's imagination, there are seven players on a Quidditch team, each mounted on a broomstick. Three Chasers try to score goals by throwing a ball called the Quaffle through one of three high vertical hoops, protected by a single Keeper, at either end of the field. Two Beaters try to hit those Chasers with a hard little ball called a Bludger. And a Seeker tries to earn points by finding a tiny bird-like ball called the Golden Snitch.

We play a version I call Terrestrial Quidditch. Until jetpacks are perfected, we're stuck playing on the ground. The Quaffles must remain in the air, however, and the participants must stay on broomsticks, which slows their running and means the Quaffle and Bludgers must be handled with one hand. If a Quaffle hits the ground, possession changes. There are two hoops strung between trees at either end (thanks to Evan Williams, our Facilities Mastermind). Each team has one Bludger; if the opponent in possession of the Quaffle is hit with it, the other team gets the ball. The Golden Snitch, which can be found by any player, is hidden somewhere on the playing area--on the ground or in a tree.

There were many highlights in our blustery November Quidditch season. Maya, Trent and Nico proved star Keepers. Matthew, Isobel and Kaeli found several Snitches. Jianmarco and Nik were energetic and effective Chasers. And everyone wore themselves out, and looked hilarious, racing and hopping around on broomsticks, like four-year-olds with toy horsey sticks.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This is our third read-aloud of the year (not counting Alice, which Joanna and I took turns reading in Iowa, with an assist from a CD we listened to on the bus for a few chapters).

Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is told from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old boy who is incapable of inference. He can only think logically. He can't understand faces, idioms, metaphors, or lying. His name is Christopher John Francis Boone.

As a logician, he is an admirer of Sherlock Holmes--hence the book's title. When Christopher discovers that a neighbor's dog has been killed, he decides to find the perpetrator.

This book is unlike any I've ever read. The kids probably have plenty of thoughts to share. They are as lively and responsive during our sessions as ever. Reading aloud, of which Joanna is a tireless component, has probably been the most rewarding and lowest-tech innovation of my recent educational career.

Barring a barrage of snow days, we will finish The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time before the holiday break. Next up in January: Tracks by Louise Erdrich.

All of Our Alices

Every production is different, but if Alice herself described her namesake extravaganza-in-progress here at Summers-Knoll, she might describe it as O my, really so VERY different.

One of my favorite characteristics of this production is the nature of the collaboration amongst faculty, families, and students. It should come as no surprise that eighth graders, most of them veterans of three SK plays, have taken on great responsibilities. Isobel made costumes happen for The Odyssey, and, with contributions from Sarah Kingham, Christine Moellering and others, is doing a great deal of that work on Alice (including some fabulous surprises for Tweedledum and Tweedledee, our only import from Through the Looking Glass). Mike is directing one of the play's eleven scenes. Josh Grekin is King of Music, but Maya and Elizabeth are composing and arranging much of it, and helping to oversee all of it. Nico is anchoring a couple of those songs on the cello, and Matthew, a seventh grader, has composed incidental music, which he will also perform. Aristea wrote one of the songs. As he did for The Odyssey, Jianmarco is masterminding props, including their acquisition, design, and organization.

What really differentiates Alice is the degree to which younger students have been part of the creative process. Some of the 5-6s participated in writing lyrics for the croquet opus. The 3-4s have written music too, and a crack team of 3-4 visionaries, designers, and carpenters under Andaiye Spencer's direction are building the set pieces. Josh worked with the earliest elementary students, the kids in kindergarten, first and second grade, to write three of the play's nine songs. And an eager Face Paint Battalion comprised of students in grades 3-8, parents, staff, and Megan Dooley, will be adorning fifty faces with hypoallergenic glittery paint.

Fill up on tea and cucumber sandwiches! The rabbit-hole beckons. Alice will be performed on the evening of Friday, December 12, and the afternoon and evening of Saturday, December 13.

Topia Projects

From day to day, amidst a raft of deadlines and many competing agendas, it can be hard to track what's actually getting done. Stepping back for a look is often surprising, usually in a positive way.

The SK 7-8s' thinking on the early theme of Utopia, Dystopia, and Diaspora was generated by literature, individual research, and conversation in class. In September and October, each of them read between three and five of the following books:

A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
1984, George Orwell
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
The Holder of the World, Bharati Mukherjee
Utopia, Sir Thomas More
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka
Icarus Girl, Helen Oyeyemi

Below are the projects our students designed. 
  • Aristea and Elizabeth are painting a four-wall mural depicting utopia, dystopia, and diaspora--Aristea's perfect and broken worlds are at either end and Elizabeth's people are moving from one to the other
  • Isobel wrote a paper comparing the status of twins in China, Nigeria and the United States
  • Jianmarco is showing different visions of genetic engineering, including that of Huxley's Brave New World
  • Kaeli designed an online game that engages the experience of Japanese-Americans in California during World War II, as depicted in a novel, Julie Otsuka's When the Emperor Was Divine
  • Karenna polled different age groups on their versions of a perfect world and a broken one
  • Lee designed a board game that tracks four literary characters through magical journeys (Alice, Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Jessamy from Icarus Girl)
  • Margaret is building a house with floors for Heaven, Hell, and Earth, using material on those topics from Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and--wait for it--Zoroastrianism
  • Matthew designed a card game through which players try to build a utopia, or prevent opponents from doing so
  • Maya built a detailed family tree with related research on the subject of diaspora
  • Michael wrote a paper on failed utopias, comparing and connecting their downfalls
  • Nico built a map and a presentation on mankind's trek out of Africa, and the evolution of different species over the course of that journey
  • Nik is writing a comic about the rise and fall of a perfect society
  • Trent is writing a paper on child soldiers in different parts of the world, with a focus on humanitarian efforts to help victims and prevent the practice in future
These projects will be the subject of Exhibitions in the week of December 2-5.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

High School 101

I am barnstorming my way through high school visits, sixteen in all: Clonlara, Community, Dexter, Early College, Greenhills, Huron, New Tech, Olney, Pioneer, Saline, Scattergood, Skyline, Steiner, WiHi, WTMC, and Ypsilanti. 

When my head reattaches to my body I'll put together an information sheet for everyone with basic parameters, web addresses, and deadlines. I can tell you that Steiner runs regular tours twice a month and that the first heavy-duty deadline is Greenhills' application in mid-January.

We have a middle school information session coming up on November 13. This gathering runs from 5:00 to 6:00. I will follow it up with a High School 101 session, so those of you who might be attending the middle school event can just stick around for the high school gathering. 

Here, then, is the official time:

High School 101
Thursday, November 13
6:00-7:00 pm

Thursday, October 30, 2014


At this point in the school year, we've read a lot of books. At most, 7-8s are up to seven books. Some of the kids read four different books in the Topia Series (Utopias, Dystopias, Diasporas-the list is in this post: ). 

At the very least, they've read one from that list, Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and now, Mal Peet's Keeper. These three each engage strange journeys which are largely driven by the inner lives and imaginations of the lead characters. Alice is almost entirely playful. Icarus Girl is much more spiritual, sophisticated, and scary. Mike located some terrific interviews with the author, with whom we'll try to communicate later this year. Here are a couple of the links he shared:

Keeper lies somewhere in between. It is pitched to kids this age, unlike the children's classic Alice and Oyeyemi's full-fledged novel. Its South American setting echoes much of the genre of magical realism. Unlike the other two, it has a male protagonist. In the book's narrative, he is an adult, but begins the story by recounting his early teenage years in the rainforest of an unnamed country (not quite Colombia, not quite Venezuela). 

Themes that have emerged thus far: intuition; climate change; childhood; generational conflict; ostracism; celebrity. The usual array.

Thursday, October 16, 2014


Dichotomies have emerged as a compelling theme in our literary work in September and October.

We have been reading Helen Oyeyemi's remarkable novel Icarus Girl. I read this aloud and we pause as we go to annotate, speculate and illuminate. The kids took an online predictive yes/no poll that I composed for them last week. None of the questions got unanimous answers, and as we careen into the final few chapters of Jessamy's journey, we're finding out who had the right sense of where the story is headed.

As noted in an earlier post, Icarus Girl is the story of an eight-year-old girl living in England with her Nigerian mother and English father. When the kids first wrote about the book, I asked them to identify important pairs and discuss them. Several wrote about Nigeria and England, or Jess and a friend (you won't get any spoilers here, and you should all read this fantastic book); and, as always, the kids found some matches that I wouldn't have dreamed of. Again, I won't give anything away, but the Incredible Hulk, among others, is involved. The kids are also writing new scenes for the book using Oyeyemi's vivid characters--a form of fan fiction, I suppose.

Twins are an essential element of Icarus Girl. As we begin to make plans for projects exploring the related themes of utopia, dystopia, and diaspora, dualities are emerging. Many students have pointed out that utopias don't last; others have argued that one person's perfect world might be another's broken one; some have looked at diaspora as a sad, unresolvable duality between the place you left and your new land, which may never feel entirely like home.

These projects will be developed over the next month and shared with the community at Exhibitions, probably in the first week of December. Stay tuned for details.

High School 101

Many of you know that in the second semester of the 2013-14 academic year I spent a lunch period every week with the eighth graders. We talked about the challenges to come in high school. I did my best to answer questions and supported our then-soon-to-be-alumni as they made plans to navigate environments that, no matter how wonderful, would be decidedly different from SK. We called it High School 101.

This year, HS 101 will begin earlier. In an era of school choice, selecting a high school has become what selecting a college was like for people of my generation. (For a frame of reference, I graduated high school in 1985.) With that in mind, I will be embarking on a fact-finding tour of about a dozen schools over the next few weeks.

I will speak with teachers, administrators and counselors, and I'll visit these schools in action. Once that's done, I'll set up an evening conversation time for seventh and eighth grade parents, probably around Thanksgiving.

In the meantime, I strongly encourage eighth grade parents to contact schools about shadow days, in which prospective students spend a morning or afternoon with current ninth graders. If you want to get a feel for the ethos of a school, there is no substitute for actually walking the walk of a high school student. Many area schools are making plans for official shadow days; others without such programs will accommodate inquiries.

We've been visited informally by several of our recent alumni. Before too long, we'll be bringing those ninth and tenth graders in for a little Q&A, snacks, and mutual celebration.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Here's Science

Here's a list of what we're reading (and annotating) in science.
  • Life on Earth, David Attenborough
  • Full House, Stephen Jay Gould
  • Evolution 101, Judith Scotchmoor and 21 other authors (Cal-Berkeley)
  • Flanagan's Version, Dennis Flanagan
  • Why We Get Sick, Nesse & Williams
  • Gus, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond
  • Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman
  • Silent Spring & Environmentalism, Eliza Griswold
  • Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  • The Far Side, Gary Larson
Here's a sampling of what we're doing in science.
  • defining, conducting activities, writing, and developing projects on natural selection, adaptation, mutation, evolution, and genetics 
  • conducting experiments on symbiotic relationships
  • visiting the U of M drosophila lab
  • visiting the Food Forest
Here's a First XI of what we're asking in science.
  • What is the difference between evolution and adaptation?
  • What are the means by which natural selection occurs?
  • How do these concepts apply to fields other than science?
  • What is the difference between a mutation and a mutant?
  • What is symbiosis?
  • How does science drive social change?
  • Why do we get sick?
  • What is a hox gene, and why would anyone want a luminescent fruit fly?
  • What was the process by which corn was created in Aztlan?
  • What is the relationship between magic and science?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thursday in Iowa

7:30. Breakfast in the main building: scrambled eggs, granola, oatmeal, fruit from local orchards, potatoes with fiery hot sauce, orange juice and milk.

8:30. Half the SK kids went to US History class to discuss the Amana Colonies; the other half went to World History to look at the influence of the British Empire on the spread of the English language.

9:30. Six of the kids went into the pottery studio for a hands-on tutorial with Shunpei Yamaki, an exhibiting ceramic artist. The rest went on a guided prairie walk to explore the sweeping land east of the farm.

10:45. The kids were divided amongst four math-science classes: Chemistry in the lab; Geometry in the art building, designing pallet houses; Physics in the art building, where SK kids designed a series of linked pulleys to open a curtain; Ag Research, which took place over on the farm.

12:15. Lunch in the main building: spaghetti with marinara sauce, with vegetarian, beef, or pork-and-beef options, a massive salad bar, garlic bread, roast parsnips, much of the food, again, from the farm.

12:45. Work crews, SK students scattered about Scattergood assisting with half a dozen different groups--in the kitchen, on the farm, in the central square, and elsewhere.

1:45. Collection in the 1890 Hickory Meeting House. Most days, collection, a shared silent meditation that we have adapted at Summers-Knoll, lasts about ten minutes. On Thursday, it is a forty-five minute gathering.

2:30. The late-afternoon classes, which on Thursdays are in the humanities: Prairie Lights, Lost in Translation, Myths Retold, and Logic. We sent Matthew and Lee to Logic and four students to each of the others.

4:30. Everyone either played soccer or pitched in on the farm. The footballers held their own while the farmhands moved the sheep-pen fence, picked watermelons, and washed potatoes in a fabulous Rube Goldberg student-built barrel-washer. There was also some cuddling of piglets.

6:15. Dinner in the main building: this time Irving and the sous-chefs fixed up a bigger feast--brisket from the farm, potatoes and parsnip from the farm, three kinds of fresh-baked bread, that prairie-sized salad bar again, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah.

7:00. While the Scattergood students hunkered down to study, we got on our bus and headed to the Pink Pony ice cream parlor in West Branch. Brenda remembered us, and pointed out the thank-you note we wrote in 2012, posted with other cards on the bathroom wall.

8:00. Another round of Hay Bale Tag over on the farm north of the academic campus--this one in darkness. We also held collection for awhile so we could look at the uncountable stars.

8:30. Returning, we once again colonized the art building, where we had gathered Wednesday evening. Joanna is reading from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as I write this, while the kids are sketching out four maps of the day's trajectories, activities, and discoveries.

10:00. Back to our respective domiciles--the boys with Karl to the Berquist Guest House, Joanna and the girls to the Webers' spacious home between campus and farm--to chat about the day for a few minutes before collapsing into bed.

Etiquette On Wheels

Periodically there is a buzz about 'character education'. This is taken to mean 'learning how to behave'.

On the bus to Iowa it occurred to me that how the SK 7-8 operates provides a steady series of opportunities for this type of learning, because we are constantly doing things together, and frequently on the road, moving about as a group in the public eye.

Before we left, I gave a short speech on the bus, as teachers do. I reminded the kids that we were in for a long drive and that three reminders might be useful: seats, screaming, and shushing.

A bus bombing down the freeway at sixty miles an hour is a noisy place. If you try to talk with someone who isn't sitting in one of the seats next to you, behind you, or just opposite, you're probably shouting just to be heard. Please don't.

Even if that joke was hilarious, or, no, you definitely do not like that boy, or if the song that just came on Pandora is, in fact, totes your jam, it is still not all right to respond by screaming. Screaming is not allowed on the bus.

And if your seatmate has not absorbed the first two messages and shouts or screams anyway, then politely shushing him is fine, but if you yell 'Shut UP!' at the top of your lungs, you are not actually helping matters.

At Summers-Knoll, we are always doing things together, and especially travelling together: to the university labs, to Detroit, to the Upper Peninsula, to museums, or, in this case, to Iowa. We are together about half the time over the course of a normal school day. There is a constant, hopefully subtle, corrective stream of talk regarding behavior: these are the expectations, and this is why. If you are late, enter like a ninja. If you lucked out and got a seat in the shade, offer it to someone who's been in the sun for two hours. Yes, you may do that, but not yet. We become accustomed both to the norms and to their explanations.

After that initial set of reminders, how many times did I shush the busload of middle schoolers in the trip across Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and into Iowa? Not once.

Utopia, Dystopia, Diaspora

As we wrap up September and move into October, the students are readings seven different books, a mix of novels and memoirs, that explore the linked themes of utopia, dystopia, and diaspora.

In planning the year, I thought a lot over the summer about journeys, a theme that was difficult to narrow. There is so much. Diaspora suggested itself: not a mere trek from one place to another, but a mass movement, a sweep across the globe of an entire people. This in turn suggested the twinned concepts of utopia, a perfect world, and dystopia, an entirely broken one.

Diaspora is often the movement from a broken world to a perfect one.

It is not that simple.

The kids are learning and communicating this by reading this series of books. Each will read at least one of the following. Some have already moved on to a second book. My hope is that, over the course of the year, a handful will read all seven.

A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
1984, George Orwell
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
The Holder of the World, Bharati Mukherjee
Utopia, Sir Thomas More
When the Emperor Was Divine, Julie Otsuka

Which of these is about utopia, which concerns dystopia, and which examines diaspora?

Some answers will seem obvious. I'll learn what the kids think over the next two weeks, when they will write and talk on all three of the following questions:
  • Defend this statement: This book engages the theme of utopia.
  • Defend this statement: This book engages the theme of dystopia.
  • Defend this statement: This book engages the theme of diaspora.
In October, we'll be planning projects and exhibitions on these themes, if not these books. Those will come to fruition in November.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Icarus Girl

We have been reading Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl together since the first day of school. We're a little over halfway through. The protagonist is a precocious eight-year-old girl called Jessamy, prone to tantrums and to obsessions like writing haiku and rewriting sad scenes in books like Little Women (her favorite).

Jess has an English father and a Nigerian mother. The novel takes place in England and Nigeria. The theme of pairs--duality--dichotomy--twins--phrase it how you will, but it's like Noah's Ark in there, there are twos everywhere you look. Our first writing prompts on Icarus Girl concerned the number (and identity) of pairs in the novel--thus far, the kids have identified about thirty--and the nature of Jessamy's mysterious friend, TillyTilly.

Icarus Girl explores our twinned themes of Magic and Journeys. Jess' travels between Europe and Africa inform her identity and illuminate the characters of her parents, her relations, and her new friend. TillyTilly's identity is grounded in Nigerian mythology, aspects of which were introduced to half this group last spring in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

We'll finish Icarus Girl in October. In the meantime, have the kids remind you why someone keeps leaving notes all over the Summers-Knoll second floor that read HEllO JEssY.

Interscholastic Athletic Schedule

Our six-a-side soccer team, the Summers-Knoll Dragons, will play a four-game season.

Wednesday, October 8: @ Friends School of Detroit.
Wednesday, October 15: @ Upland Hills School, in Oxford.
Wednesday, October 22: we host Friends School of Detroit.
Wednesday, October 29: we host Upland Hills School.

The co-ed roster will be drawn from our sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

Times and specific locations will be announced by Wednesday, October 1. We will probably play our home games at Lillie Park, and we will probably play at around 1:00, after lunch and before electives. All of that is still being finalized, however. 

It is also possible that we will play a fifth match against Clonlara School of Ann Arbor.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

September to December

Here is what we have up on the east-wall whiteboard. This is, more or less, our program for the fall.

Utopia Projectsbegin booksdetermine projectsExhibitions--
Utopia Exhibitions--rehearsefirst week--
Utopia Booksbegin booksbegin reading in pairscomplete readingproject & show-off
Athletics & PEsix-a-side practicesix-a-side matchesfour-school gathering?--
Work Crewsfirst rotationcontinue; shadow daysecond rotationcontinue
Sciencegenetics & biologyevolution & biologyhow magic becomes scienceschedule Exhibitions (Jan)
Lit Publications4-6 prompts4-6 promptscurate for first LP; revisionspublish
DetroitCity FC & EarthworksFriends SchoolHeidelberg?Friends to Alice?
Americans--connect to diaspora----
Student Governmentlame duck sessions; set goalselectionsrevisit and revise goalspursue goals
Journeys Idefine 'journey'; plan US tripsproject & show-off----
Journeys IIbegin maps in arthistorical research--show-off
Aliceget copies; read; composeaudition & rehearserehearseperform
Legacy Projectsbrainstormconsiderdecide and begincontinue work
Tripsvisit Iowasay thanksbrainstorm spring tripdetermine spring trip
High School 101contact alumnipoll eighth gradersshadow daysshadow days
Icarus Girlread aloudfinish----
Keeper----read aloudfinish
Magic Projectsdefine 'magic'--identify projectsset deadlines
Magic Exhibitions------schedule Exhibitions (Jan)
Accreditation--welcome letters & visitthank-you notes--

I'll be happy to discuss this anytime, because there is so much that is so exciting here. We will certainly make it a topic of conversation on Curriculum Night, scheduled for 6:30 pm on Thursday, September 18.